by Leo Williams
“You have to put on the dress for the photo,” my mother begs.
I’m five years old. My fists are balled up as my mother and I are glaring at each other from across a synthetically green lawn. She is peering through the lens of her camera, trying to direct my sister and me into the frame. As she arranges a composition, she tells us she’ll develop these photos into Christmas cards to send to family and friends.
Without wedges, my mom is five feet tall. But with the lift, she is a tower looking down. Add in her voluminous hair and a canopy casts a shadow over me. Her impatience reveals itself as her voice rises a few decibels moving from request to command. The intimidation isn’t enough to stop my protest. I continue to stand my ground against a force I cannot yet name.
We’re in Florida where instead of winter snow there is pollen gently falling around us. Instead of coats, our bare skin is exposed and warmed by sun. Instead of evergreens, there are palms. Throughout my grandparents’ yard, there are plants with menacing textures and vibrant colors. There is crown of thorns, a flower bush laden with spikes, and a pindo palm that snakes above the water. Its large fronds poke out of its trunk like a king cobra’s hood.
The subject of a photograph rarely has the ability to interject, explain, or provide context to an observer. I imagine my mother’s explanation over why I must wear a dress as germinating my distrust of photos.
What she wants is what so many are taught to want: to collect snapshots of memories. Evidence. For guests and perhaps more importantly, for us as a family at large to remember, meet, re-meet what once was. They’re beautiful photos of the two of us—one precocious daughter smiles wide as she stands in a formal dress beside a smaller, wispy-haired child who stares mischievously into the camera. Anyone who comes over will see what beautiful daughters my mother has as they walk the perimeter of the wall where framed photos of us hang.
But that day, her explanation causes my veins to bulge. I feel heat in my throat, my words difficult to form. The intensity of my anger is coaxed by the sight of what sits on the wooden bench: the little black dress waiting for me. The idea of it on my body makes the world feel intolerable, makes me condemn my family for seeing nothing wrong, nothing awkward, nothing unnatural about asking me to wear a dress. I look towards the crown of thorns, wishing for a cobra to emerge out of the shadows. If it did, it would slither towards me, crawl up my legs, wrap its limbless body around my wrist, and bite me with its venomous mouth. Don’t be mistaken—I do not wish to die at this moment, just to interrupt it. I wish for an escape because the inevitable is about to happen. As I wilt, I get closer to the velvet dress sliding over my body.
I imagine my mother, a woman dedicated to fashion, thinking to herself as we skirmished: how could my kid feel so strongly against wearing such a nice dress? I imagine telling her with my limited five-year-old vocabulary that I hated dresses, that they were stupid and ugly. I imagine the distance of understanding each other constantly growing. I was a tomboy too, my mother had said, looking for ways to close the gap. Perhaps for a time, our childhood selves really did live parallel lives—but the road veered sharply at dresses, skirts, and makeup. I moved further towards categories such as difficult, peculiar, and stubborn as the gap continued to widen. The only other words parents were taught to describe children like me.
To this day, when characterized as stubborn, I flinch. It is a word laced with the memory of lip-quivering frustration. To feel incorrectly classified evokes a range of emotions, ones that made me feel unrelatable, misunderstood, incapable of articulating or defending my embodied experience. Even now, what I experienced cannot be properly named, has yet to be invented––maybe it never can be.
Throughout my life, my mother and grandfather have told me with amusement how the pressure to wear a dress eventually pushed me towards asking for money. With a lilt in their voices, they would recount how money seemed to settle disputes over clothes. I asked for something meager at first, in exchange for posing in front of the camera. But in the following years I raised my rate. I asked for ten, then for twenty. Looking back, asking for and receiving money was only a way to mimic the feeling that I had a choice in the way I presented my body. I assume by then I had seen the way people were paid for their time and labor, efforts that sometimes seemed less taxing than what I was asked to do that day. People get paid for work and getting paid for mine was a way to push me out of feeling less than zero.
As I grew older, I became tired. I began to settle for clothing I abhorred, stopped negotiating with my family, took a photo without protesting. I like to imagine if I could have articulated my five-year-old experience, I would have told anyone who challenged me that I was not stubborn or difficult, but that I knew, for reasons I could not explain, like sensing danger on the horizon, that wearing pants was critical to my survival. That it still is.
When I was a junior in college, I walked into a Queer Film seminar and met my first transgender instructor. I wasn’t sure at first if the person standing behind the podium was trans, but I allowed my suspicions to grow as I watched them conduct class.
The first sign was that they taught a queer studies class. The second came when they announced they were teaching a transgender studies class the following year. By the fourth week, I felt certain my internal system had clocked them as trans.
If you have noticed Ancient Greek sculptures depicting a single figure holding all their weight on one leg while the remainder of the body rests, collapses into a tensionless position, they are standing contrapposto. I studied my instructor the way one might when browsing an unfamiliar wing at an art museum—at first, slowly, and absentmindedly. But over time, I searched for patterns like any good researcher. I looked for where they held tension, where they relaxed––any clue that gestured at whatever I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It was as much of what I heard as what I saw—Mx. Loren alluded to their transness with what was to me, eyebrow-raising comments: we can all relate to the way gender constricts us, right? It wasn’t only what they said but how they said it.
It was a flick of the hand. A slight, self-conscious turn to the side. It was the way they pressed their lips together, the way they held a constant tension. It was an aloofness. I see it replicated now in myself and other trans folks, the type of aloofness only possible when a person has eyes in every section of their head, perceiving themself and watching others perceive them simultaneously.
Mx. Loren was the first transperson I had identified on my own, long before I felt capable of naming my own displaced gender. When I look back on identifying them, I think, for a trans person to have identified a trans person as trans before they identified as trans is proof that the multi-cellular body senses genderqueerness in others before the mind names and claims it for itself. Suspecting they were trans despite their stealthy existence felt like acquiring the validation I was looking for—that I really was queer, even if I couldn’t yet define what being queer was.
They never disclosed their transness to me, and I never did ask them what their pronouns were during office hours. But I knew they were trans, and part of this knowledge was guided by something difficult to explain—intuition. I was sensing them performing their gender, and although it was radically different from how I was performing mine at the time, it was clear to me that we shared similar origin points. This intuitive feeling knew that if I departed from where I was sitting on the plastic auditorium seat, if I broke character, exposed, and named how badly I performed femininity, if I lowered down my masculinity onto the stage it would bring me to where they were standing.
It isn’t that I am suggesting trans people are conducting some kind of gender forgery and that I spotted theirs. It is that we are often gesturing into something entirely different. Something hybrid, a spin wheel at the casino. An amalgamation of every lived experience we’ve ever had. A kitchen sink where all the ingredients of gender blend together to make a new dish.
Maybe it is wrong to admit I carefully watched my instructor, wrong that I am writing about how I teased out their transness through scrutiny of myself and them. But it brings me comfort. Even more so now that I know I am trans. Now that my chest flutters with excitement and wonder when I spot covert queers in likely and unlikely places: them too, I think.
At the time I walked into the classroom, I identified as a gay girl. Mostly because I slept with girls and had a girlfriend. I had heard the term “queer” before. The word slithered through the hallways of my dorm, sneakily circled around me at a party, and finally made itself visible to me on a flyer: “Sign up for Queer Films,” it read, “a seminar exploring questions of cinema and television in relation to the larger issues concerning visual representations and definitions of sexuality and gender.”
When I enrolled in the class, I knew little about queerness. What I thought I knew was the equivalent of playing a game of telephone–the original message became jumbled with each whisper. I missed the first day of class and arrived the week after, panicked as I scanned the room of mohawks, bowties, and buzzcuts. Without hearing how people referred to themselves, I sensed everyone who sat in that theater room had interrogated their pronouns, had claimed, reclaimed, or disowned them altogether. Until that moment, I had never felt self-conscious about using she and her. But that first day in class, I felt shamefully insecure, wanting to guard them, not tell anyone how to refer to me. I thought the wrong pronouns would immediately expose me as being aligned with a cisheteronormative world, pushing me away from my peers.
I remained petrified, unsure of how to navigate not knowing the instructor’s and my peers' pronouns. Something inside me knew if I addressed someone with the incorrect pronoun that it would matter. It would matter a whole lot. Maybe it would matter especially because of my ambiguous membership, my poor feminine performance that suggested I was queer even if I didn’t know it yet. Maybe I felt the possibility to redeem a queer membership was on the line. This is why I sat in the back row of the theater for the entirety of the semester, paralyzed, within arm’s reach of the exit, just in case I needed to make a run for it.
Throughout the semester I was inundated with canonical images and sounds of queers defying societal expectations––it was displayed on Gran Fury posters, in Paris is Burning’s depiction of ballroom culture, in the melody and lyrics of Le Tigre songs. The messages were carried by crowds of people. With each new film or queer text, I noticed it. To riot and resist you needed company. Queerness was almost always accompanied by community.
However, in the two years since I had come out as gay and moved to the third largest city in the U.S., I hadn’t found even a small group of gay friends, let alone a whole community. Within the first week of college, all the queers in my grade had flocked towards each other, had formed intimate bubbles. Groups that appeared tightly closed to new members soon after forming.
At the time, I was looking for all signs of my inadequacy—to me, lack of community and my inability to integrate into the class were a result of not being queer enough. Maybe all the queers in my class, instructor included, were studying me too, similarly to how I studied them: with suspicion and caution. Maybe my peers saw a girl with a high ponytail, a bulky sweater, and black skinny jeans, all bunched up in the corner of the class and wondered if I was an intruder, a voyeur, maybe even a fetishist. If I wasn’t being ignored, maybe I was being left alone to be self-exploratory. Maybe whatever distance that was maintained between me and them was a type of initiation, a way to see if I really wanted to be part of all this.
All semester we watched underground classics by Kenneth Anger, Sadie Benning, Cheryl Dunye, Susan Stryker, along with work by other queer and trans icons. The films they created proved that queerness was everywhere, not just in New York City and San Francisco, but in Pre-War Germany, in working class coastal France, and in smaller U.S. cities, like Lincoln and Kansas City. Queer archives existed, you just had to go looking for them.
My most important field observation was that a politic was always associated with queerness. To be queer was to oppose hegemony—a goal achieved through inventing, reinventing, transgressing, deconstructing, and reclaiming whatever messages and meaning belonged to people with power. Putting queer images and stories into the world was a form of resistance—subverting the category of artmaking. In Fast Trip, Long Drop, Gregg Bordowitz, puts on display his own life as he grapples with discovering he is HIV-positive, and what this means for him as a Jewish queer man. The film explores the spaces where the filmmakers’ identities converge through the autobiographical. For Bordowitz to not use actors to portray his life, to expose and explore his life-altering conditions as they were happening in real time was critical, was urgent, was queer.
Then we watched Kenneth Anger’s 1964 film Scorpio Rising. Throughout the film the camera pans over men caring for their vehicles, adorning themselves in gear, as 60s hits serenade them in soft rock and roll. Seven minutes into the film, Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet begins. As the music whirls, the camera moves up from the bottom of a pair of jeans, passes over a rip at the knee. It keeps going, watching the actor buckle his belt. More glimpses of men—one in his early twenties with a blonde pompadour rolling down a black muscle tee and tucking it into his jeans. Another grabs his heavy leather jacket off a chair and pushes his arms through the sleeves. The back of his jacket is adorned with different metal plates, pyramid and rivet studs, dangling chains. Grabbing the insertion pin at the bottom of his zipper, he clasps it to the retainer and pulls the zipper up. He takes the jacket’s belt, puts it into a metal buckle, and pulls tight.
The characters in this film are never developed—save for Anger juxtaposing controversial images and symbols together, there is hardly even a plot—yet the images cast just as much of a spell on the viewer as the music that blares across the 28-minute-long film. I watched the actors flip through manuals, wipe down parts, polish handlebars, soften the leather of their seats, smoke while unscrewing bolts and hexes, and putter around their dwellings, meticulously cleaning and examining their bikes. With each song transition, I swooned over the ways the actors’ physical labor seemed blessed by Anger’s lens. Halfway through the film, I felt captured—I wanted to feel, on a regular basis, the way the interplay of the music and images made me feel. I suspected, it wasn’t what they were doing, but what they were wearing—maintaining a motorcycle appeared easy because of their clothes. They got dressed before work, I thought. It was clear each article had been chosen with care. I thought the clothes warmed up their eyes and made them careful, selective as they maintained their motorcycles. It was the clothes, I thought, that transformed their labor into something pious.
I didn’t quite care what the motorcyclists were getting dressed and preparing their vehicles for or what it had to say today about white American motorcycle culture. I didn’t even care what all this had to say about sexual tension or how 40s and 50s American icons shaped masculinity into whatever we think of it today. I didn’t care about the subversive elements of the film either. In fact, the politics of the movie went completely over my head—I remained focused on the clothes these actors wore and the attitudes they were able to adopt. Its progression locked my fixation on the idea that clothes carried these men, made them capable, functional, brought them community, gave them a sense of belonging. Their hardy, stoic faces were held up by their clothes. This, I thought, was what gave them the appearance of strength and confidence.
As I watched, I was flooded with memories of my childhood. The times I was at stores and watched with envy as people shopped vacuously in the men and boy’s section. The times I reached out my hand to touch the clothes just to retract it in embarrassment. Recoiling from an invisible, omniscient gaze watching over me. I realized maybe it was this looming gaze that ensured I maintained a distant relationship with masculinity. I then started to think that maybe I could change the way I felt if I wore clothes that invited myself and others to perceive its presence within me.
I looked around and noticed how everyone else in the film seminar appeared to wear clothes that made them look like how they wanted to be perceived—as queer. Such as the person with the feathered hair, who wore a bowtie every day to class or the person with the lace-up combat boots with pickle-green hair. Mx. Loren, although dressed in more basic, easy-on-the-eyes grey-toned button-downs, dressed in a way that helped me and others perceive them the way they wanted to be perceived—as a bookish masculine professor.
My classmates were mostly graduate students and seniors, people who had had more time to develop a relationship with their identities, their sexualities, and their sense of style. I’m sure they were not spared the usual and expected difficulties of being visibly queer—of being othered in general. But I still wondered how the students in my class found clothes that gave off an armor-like energy—each article, every accessory suggested they were fighters, ready to resist whatever and whoever. I started to wonder if I would find clothes that made me feel capable of resisting what was expected of me. Could I be so bold as to wear cropped jeans and leather jackets like the men in Scorpio Rising?
Now that I am here, I realize when I looked at my peers, I wanted to believe that feeling disjointed eventually went away. It was an easy thing to do, mythologize those I admired from afar—I was, after all, sitting in an auditorium watching film after film that depicted queers as thrashing against the entire construct of gender. All these years later, I’ve come to believe that many of us never really fit into our skin, that the right clothing isn’t enough to pacify. Many of us want our clothing to tell story about who we are or want to be, mostly to make it hurt less.
Until that point in my life, all my physical and internal transformations had been glacially slow. I had always studied what I wanted long before I tried to manifest it in my life. I needed to suffer in my yearning before integrating any physical, sartorial, and/or social changes. Sometimes I waited years before making a decision. But, every time class ended, I felt myself willing to reach out—to do something about what I thought I wanted, what I thought I needed.
Before watching Scorpio Rising, I could only see clothing as individual pieces, never as entire compositions. Seeing the way these men wore their clothes modeled how each article fit together like motorbike components—each piece was critical. Their outfits even seemed complete as they walked around shirtless. Watching them imbued me with the want to wear clothes that carried me through my actions too, to turn my labor from the mundane into a more elevated ritual, into something mystical. Clothes, I thought, would teleport me into a different body, or lift me up into feeling better about myself. Maybe the right muscle tee could help me believe I was capable, independent, brave—maybe the right pants could fill me with the strength to be who I needed to be: a fighter again.
I didn’t change the way I dressed overnight. After the semester ended, all those moving images, all that watching of my classmates and instructor followed me. They would reappear in me like sublimated messages each time I saw a visibly queer person, or even a person that seemed to rest more easily in their skin. Finally, I decided I had to start small. I began with the most hidden layer of any outfit: underwear.
The first time I tried to buy boxers I walked into the Target next door to my college. I followed the escalator up to the second floor and wandered through aisles filled with garish colors advertising sales on blouses, swimwear, home goods. I anxiously meandered through the store looking for the men’s section—each millisecond that went by as I searched felt like an eternity. I passed attendants but felt I couldn’t just go up and ask a clerk where the boxers were now that I was acutely aware of my subpar feminine performance. I felt they’d know what I was really up to if I did.
Then I found a loose packet of briefs tucked behind a row of water bottles. I felt my face flush with red at the thought of donning the tight white briefs enclosed in the packet—these were the type teenage boys and men without any sense of style wore. These wouldn’t catapult me into feeling more functional, I thought––these weren’t what the Scorpio Rising men wore. I looked up and I found I had arrived at the boxer-lined aisle.
As I browsed the different styles and colors, my nervousness increased. Each time a guy walked past me, I imagined them wondering if I was lost. When I reached to inspect a pair of boxers, I imagined someone side-eyeing me, wondering who the boxers would be for. The thought of any man noticing me as I browsed stirred shame for wanting to wear men’s clothes. Girls wear boy shorts, I thought to myself, as I tried to sort out my insecurities. But no voice inside me could calm me—I knew I was on the precipice of something greater than a row of boxers or a set of curious looks. I knew where I was heading wasn’t some trend or phase, but an important step forward towards wearing clothes that would change my relationship to gender for the rest of my life. I listened to my thoughts, studied my insecurities, and imagined giving into the urge to fight. Start with the imagined onlookers, I thought—just turn and give them a look. Communicate to the outside world: no, these are for me.
I continued to stare at the boxers until I found a pair that seemed neither modest nor scanty: black boxer briefs. With a pair in hand, I worried what would happen once I carried them over to check-out. Another gaze, another obstacle, I thought. What if the cashier asked who the boxers were for? Just reply they are for your boyfriend or someone else, I said to myself. But it was too late—I was retreating. I stepped toward the exit and shivered as I felt the private humiliation of turning away. I rode the train home, clutching the rail with my empty, sweaty hands.
I eventually started shopping in the men’s section of thrift stores. I had watched how people shopped, how all types of people seamlessly wandered between the men’s and women’s sections. It was the perfect place to cruise for clothes.
I soon noticed that while the rest of the men's racks were overflowing with clothes of different sizes, my size was always hard to find. Up until then, I had shopped for size mediums in the women’s section––a size usually well-stocked. I was amused at first when even a size small in men was too large on my body, but eventually it became disappointing to go hunting for smaller sizes. My new size was never available in abundance—it was a pinch at most at the beginning of each clothing rack. The masses of men’s clothes donated to each store that were not proportional to my body was proof that I was far below the average size of a man in the United States.
Even though I was swimming in these fabrics, I bought these larger sizes anyways. It was a win the first few times I bought men’s clothes—I delighted in finding the types of clothes that mirrored what a young Rainer Fassbinder or a young Marlon Brando wore in their films. But once I saw myself in a mirror, I felt distinctly trans in an unaffirming way. The shoulders would slide over my bicep, a shirt would be long enough to reach the top of my thighs, the pants sat below my waist. Nothing was skin-tight, nothing clung to my body in sensual ways—and if it did, it would usually come from the kid's section, filling me with perverse discomfort.
Pants were always the hardest. One day at a store, I pulled down a pair of mauve-colored pants that had a crease line as straight as a ruler running down the middle of the legs. Beautiful, I thought. I carried them around the store with me as I browsed the other clothing racks. The pants in my arms were only marginally different from other pairs I had at home. But these were a different color, I’d reason, these just a tad bit tighter.
I often went looking for recognizable brands, such as Levi’s and Wranglers. Any brand that made clothes like what the men wore in Scorpio Rising. That same day I found a pair of ash-colored Wranglers, significantly marked down from a pair at full price. They reminded me of a pair I had at home––pants that I had been an impulsive splurge, bought at full price from a Western Wear store in Chicago. I had heard, for just an extra five dollars, any pants bought from the Western Wear store could be tailored to fit your body. A chance to have my clothes modified to fit my body felt like a luxury worth far more than the price of a new pair of pants.
I felt dignified as I stood in the dressing room while the tailor took down my measurements. He asked me where I wanted the pant legs to fall, and when I said above the ankle, he rolled up one pant leg to where he thought I should have the pants hemmed then gestured for me to sit down. Look at where the pants sit, he said as he pulled the cuff taut. I looked down and thought only of the men in films whose clothes I admired, of their cropped jeans and Chelsea boots––all reason interrupted by my giddiness. Roll them up a little more, I said. Showing an expression of concern, he tried to convince me to tuck some of the material behind the pant leg, just in case one day I wanted to change the cut and extend them downwards. But I wouldn’t listen to him. I felt myself inching closer to the desirable, mystical, Scorpio Rising look—for once men’s pants would fit, I thought. He then stuck pins into the rolled-up cuffs to hold the length in place.
A week later the pants were returned to me. I tried them on and studied every aspect of the fit—the waist belt was snug, the legs were neither loose nor tight. I looked down at my feet and thought the ankles looked a bit shorter than I remembered. I put on a pair of boots and studied the way the edges of the pants and boot collar interacted. It wasn’t until I sat down that I saw just how short the ankles were: when seated, the pant hem line rose to right under my knees, exposing nearly my entire leg. What was returned to me were no longer pants that gestured at the mystical, but underwhelming capris. So, when I saw the pair with a longer inseam at the thrift store, I felt like a gambler with renewed chances. I’ll get it right this time, I thought.
But no matter how many pairs of Levi’s and Wranglers I bought, no matter how many styles of jackets and boots I collected, no matter how full a collection of Scorpio Rising-like clothes I found myself with, it was never enough. I wonder if it would be enough even if the world pulled fabric tape up to my legs and arms and stitched together a new standard for clothing. I wonder if clothes were custom-made for me, if I pushed my arms through a sleeve hole that hugged me not tightly, but in a way that communicated the world finally got my measurements down––I wonder if that’s what it would take to make me no longer feel shapeless and hollow, if all that empty space could finally be filled.
Leo Williams (they/them) is a transmasculine artist and writer from Miami, FL. They are currently based in Albuquerque, NM where they are an MFA student in the Creative Nonfiction program at the University of New Mexico. Their writing centers narratives about relationship to place, gender, capitalism, healthcare, familial drama, and the cyclical nature of emotions from a trans perspective. Before pursuing writing, they received their BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their work is forthcoming in The Florida Review. You can find their other creative work at lwilliams.club.